What would the world be like if women could—and sometimes did—transform into dragons, eat their abusive husbands, light their empty houses on fire, and fly away to live peacefully on uninhabited islands, or in the ocean, or among the stars?
I read a lot of speculative fiction, mostly fantasy, because science fiction highlights today’s problems and I’m neck-deep in today’s problems and trying not to drown. And yes, I read feminist writing and primarily writing by women. Yet when one of my sources of e-books recommended a book called When Women Were Dragons, I was hesitant. The title didn’t exactly draw me in. It was the “were,” as though the book would be a history of a more magical time. I wanted dragons in the here-and-now of the story. But I chose to read a sample, and when the sample was done, I bought the book to find out what would happen.
First let me tell you this: if you want answers to every question, solutions to every world-building problem, this is not the book for you. This is somewhat like literary fiction in that it focuses on the emotional story of a girl growing up in the repressive 1950s in America, a girl whose family life is stressful, whose father does literally nothing other than go to work, and whose principal asks her to consider how the boys in her class feel when she tops the honor roll time after time. If there’s an occasional missing couple, abandoned or burned house, the government explains it as a simple fire and so do the narrator’s parents. You did not see what you thought you saw is the attitude of the day, combined with an oppressive sexism that makes even the word dragon as taboo as menstruation and clitoris put together.
I know, I said I prefer fantasy because it isn’t about today’s problems. This book suckered me in, and though I saw clearly the writer using the misogyny and paranoid nationalism of post-WWII America as a parallel for the Trump and Roe-v.-Wade-overturning Supreme Court era, I kept reading. And why did I keep reading? Because in this story, women could become bigger on the outside to reflect the size of their minds, and hearts, and spirits. In this story, dragons are bulletproof.
There are wounds here, and reckonings. What happens to those left behind after a woman dragons? (And yes, I was in love with that verb-ing of the word dragon from its first use in the book.) What happens to a country when it begins to question the story it is told?
I told you, the book asks more questions than it answers. Oh, it provides more than I do here, don’t worry. There are potential solutions, possibilities that work out more quickly and easily for Kelly Barnhill’s characters than they will for us. Those solutions and possibilities show us just how much work is left to do, how women’s rage and women’s strength and women’s desire for a bigger life matter.
If you read past the end of the book, into the acknowledgements, you will discover that Barnhill was inspired to write it by the courage of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who knew that her own life would be shattered by her testimony against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—and did it anyway.
My own mother got married in 1957. She had wanted to be a doctor, but she and my father met in college and married in their senior year. They both graduated, and then she supported him through graduate school, and then raised four children, and only went back to get her nursing degree after 20 years of marriage. After reading this book, I can’t help imagining my mother in 1957, doing what she thought she was supposed to, accepting the boundaries society laid out for her because she was young and didn’t know there was a choice. I imagine my father’s anger growing year by year, and though she loved her children and had always wanted us, I can see her wanting more—more learning, more freedom, more purpose in the world. At night now, when I close my eyes to sleep, I see her dragoning: a started “oh!,” a look of joy, her body growing as large and beautiful as her spirit, and her taking wing across the prairie sky.
Categories: Katie's Voice
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